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Originally published August 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 21, 2005 at 12:30 AM

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Leaving Gaza brings more work, questions

There were emotional standoffs, burning barricades, curses and tears. But by week's end, Israel's divisive and historic plan to clear its...

Knight Ridder Newspapers

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — There were emotional standoffs, burning barricades, curses and tears. But by week's end, Israel's divisive and historic plan to clear its citizens out of the occupied Gaza Strip had gone so smoothly that many people are asking: What's next?

The military operation swept into most of the 21 Gaza Strip settlements and dislodged not only the longtime settlers who wanted to make a symbolic stand but also thousands of outside protesters.

The withdrawal paused for the Jewish Sabbath, but the first Israeli forces arrived before daybreak today to evacuate Katif and Atzmona, the last settlements in the main Gush Katif bloc.

Later today, Israel's Cabinet was to vote on removing the last three Gaza enclaves along with four in the West Bank.

Israeli officials said they planned to speed up this week's timetable. The last Gaza settlements should be empty by tomorrow, and the army plans to begin clearing two settlements in the northern West Bank on Tuesday.

While there still could be some pockets of resistance, the focus already is turning to where the Israelis and Palestinians go from here.

For Israel, there still is much to be done. The military must dismantle its outposts, demolish thousands of homes, relocate Jewish cemeteries and hand over the land to the Palestinians.

Then, it will fall to the Palestinians to use the momentum to begin sowing the seeds of an independent state.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas signed a decree yesterday appropriating Jewish settlement land for public use once Israel's evacuation of Gaza is complete, and he scheduled postponed Palestinian legislative elections for Jan. 25.

Abbas faces some serious obstacles.

Israel plans to build a new high-tech barrier around the Gaza Strip and is hesitant to allow Palestinians to reopen the airport. Without free access, many Palestinians worry that the Israeli pullout won't end the occupation but will isolate impoverished Palestinians in the crowded coastal area.

Most men between the ages of 16 and 35 have long been barred from leaving the region, and many worry that Israel won't ease travel restrictions.

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More than anything, Palestinians are worried that the pullout will not mark the start of renewed peace talks but the end.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pushed through the pullout as a unilateral move after growing frustrated with stalled peace talks and the violent Palestinian uprising. The death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat paved the way for a new era of potential compromise, but Abbas is off to a shaky start.

Palestinian militants are testing Abbas' strength and determination to rein in armed groups. The militants view the pullout as a triumph not for moderation and compromise but for violent confrontation.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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